Sea goddesses and ancient rituals thrive at Munakata Grand Shrine

By Vicki L Beyer

Some 60 kilometers off the northwest coast of Fukuoka Prefecture lies the tiny island of Okinoshima. The closest municipality is Munakata city, famous for its fisheries, particularly the abalone and wakame seaweed harvested by ama (free diving fisherwomen) and line-caught fugu (blowfish). Just seven kilometers offshore from Munakata, between Okinoshima and the city, is the larger island of Oshima.

Looking at a map, one can draw a straight line from Munakata across the northern shore of Oshima and on to Okinoshima. This line extends another 145 kilometers to Busan in South Korea. Indeed, excavations on Okinoshima show substantial historical trading connections via this route dating back at least 1,500 years. In those ancient times Okinoshima served as a sea-borne marker, and rest stop, for sailors making a treacherous crossing. Perhaps because of this, there is also a deeper, spiritual connection between Munakata and the two islands.

Each place is home to one of three sister sea goddesses, the daughters of Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess from which Japan’s Imperial Family is said to have descended.

Stylized image of the three goddesses and their role as guardians of mariners Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The three sea goddesses are believed to watch over mariners in general, but especially the fishing community of Munakata. The history and deep traditions of the Munakata Grand Shrine and other associated sites in the area led to UNESCO World Heritage status in 2017.

Once a year the three sister goddesses are reunited when priests from the mainland Munakata Shrine (known as Hetsu-gu) are carried by local fishing boats flying colorful flags, to each of Oshima and Okinoshima to retrieve the two island-dwelling goddesses and bring them to temporary residences at Hetsu-gu for several days of rites and celebrations. Known as the Grand Autumn Festival, it takes place every Oct 1-3.

Fishing boats form a flotilla as they head to the islands to fetch the goddesses for the Grand Autumn Festival.

Notwithstanding the World Heritage listing, women are never allowed on Okinoshima. In modern times, the island has only one human resident, a Shinto priest sent by the shrine’s headquarters at Hetsu-gu to conduct daily rituals on behalf of the sea goddess of the Okitsu-gu shrine of the island. One priest from the mainland lives on the island for a shift of several months and is then relieved by brother priests from the mainland serving in rotation.

During the Grand Autumn Festival, those men traveling to Okinoshima by boat to retrieve the goddess, once properly purified, are permitted on the island in order to participate in the rituals involved in removing the goddess to the mainland for the duration of the festival.

Oshima, on the other hand, has a resident population of around 700 and regular ferry service from the mainland, making it a somewhat popular destination for day trippers. Overnight accommodations are also available for tourists who want to really slow down and enjoy the island atmosphere.

Oshima, a short ferry ride from the mainland, has a variety of delights for day trippers. Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Nakatsu-gu, the third of the three shrines that make up the Munakata Grand Shrine, is a common destination for visitors to Oshima. Bicycling around the island and climbing to the top of Mt Mitake (elevation 225 meters), said to be the original site of Nakatsu-gu, are also popular. There are nice beaches, museums, and excellent seafood. On the seaward side of Oshima is a “satellite” Okitsu-gu, from which anyone, male or female, can pay their respects to the goddess on Okinoshima, who is otherwise inaccessible except when brought to the mainland for the Grand Autumn Festival.

Satellite Okitsu-gu on Oshima allows anyone to offer prayers to the goddess of the forbidden island of Okinoshima. Photo: Vicki L Beyer

So, every year, early in the morning on Oct 1, two fleets of fishing boats sail out from Munakata, one to retrieve the goddess of Nakatsu-gu on Oshima and the other all the way out to Okinoshima to bring back the goddess of Okitsu-gu. Once back on the mainland, the goddesses, who have been transferred to portable shrines, are paraded to Hetsu-gu, where they are transferred to their temporary quarters on the Hetsu-gu grounds.

These are two shrine buildings that originally stood on the grounds of the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. Ise’s shrines are rebuilt every 25 years and when these shrines were being rebuilt some years ago, the old shrine buildings were dismantled and rebuilt at Munakata’s Hetsu-gu to become the annual temporary homes of the island goddesses.

Ise Grand Shrine structures were rebuilt at Munakata’s Hetsu-gu to house the visiting goddesses during the Grand Autumn Festival. Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The festival itself involves various ancient rituals to please the sister goddesses at their reunion and to honor them as a triumvirate. Besides prayers and incantations, there is even the ritual of traditional tea ceremony for the goddesses.

While Hetsu-gu is doubtless at its busiest during the Grand Autumn Festival, its expansive grounds are pleasant to visit at any time of year. The shrine sits about 1.5 kilometers inland near the left bank of the Tsurikawa river. The outer courtyard of the shrine is dominated by a barbell-shaped pond that must be crossed by a bridge in order to approach the main worship hall, which sits behind protecting palings in an inner courtyard. The perimeter of the inner courtyard is dominated by multiple small satellite shrines.

A trail up the mountainside behind the main worship hall leads to the site of the original shrine, a sacred site simply delineated by stones and poles from which are suspended purifying ropes and shide paper streamers. There was never a shrine structure here. My Japanese friends tell me they are deeply moved by the natural solemnity of this spot.

The original Hetsu-gu shrine was a mere sacred spot on the mountainside, still much revered. Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Also on the Hetsu-gu grounds is Shinpo-kan, the shrine’s treasure hall, a museum containing various artifacts associated with the shrine. The main collection on display are materials excavated from Okinoshima during archaeological excavations conducted in the 1950s and 1969-1971. More than 80,000 artifacts dating to the fourth to ninth centuries, some of them from as far away as ancient Persia, establish both the spiritual history of the area and its role as the end of the Silk Road.

Included in the World Heritage listing is the Shimbaru-Nuyama “mounded tomb group”, a series of kofun burial mounds of leaders of the Munakata clan which is credited with watching over and preserving the three shrines and their traditions during the period between the fourth and eleventh centuries. While the island of Kyushu has many well-preserved kofun, particularly dating from the fourth to sixth centuries, these World Heritage-listed mounds, just to the southeast of the ferry port, are perhaps among the most accessible for non-Japanese-speaking visitors, as there are English brochures and easy to follow trails. It is fascinating to observe that there are ongoing excavations of the kofun, too.

Keyhole-shaped kofun with a circular kofun next to it Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Munakata is interesting to visit for its fisheries and kofun, but of course the shrine complexes of the mainland and Oshima island, together with the inaccessibility of Okinoshima and the intriguing “goddesses on tour” aspect of the Grand Autumn Festival that is coming up soon, all contribute to making this a worthy destination for any tourist looking to delve a bit deeper into the wonders of Japan.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at

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